The Children’s Bach – Helen Garner

The children

Today is the last day of my three weeks off and what a wonderful time I’ve had reading, reading, reading. I’ve been on a bit of an Australian fiction kick because I was thinking about the sort of stories writers choose to tell. Its such an individual thing and so important for me as a writer to focus on the stories that mean something to me.

That led me to one of my favourite authors, Helen Garner, and The Children’s Bach, published in 1984. I was also interested to read this because it is one of the books included in my ‘Making Stories’ book (read post here) about how ten Australian novels came to be written.

The Children’s Bach, like all of Helen Garner’s books, focuses on the nature of family and friends and how we live.  Athena and Dexter Fox are a couple living in Melbourne with two young children, one of whom has special needs and appears to be autistic, although this is not stated. On a trip to the airport one day, Dexter bumps into Elizabeth, an old friend and lover from his university days. Elizabeth’s mother is dead and her much younger sister Vicky has come to live with her. These two women come into the lives of Dexter and Athena, along with Elizabeth’s unreliable but charismatic musician boyfriend Philip. The effect of music on autistic Billy, on amateur Athena, and professional Philip is woven through the story.

One of the things I love about Helen Garner’s writing is that she values the ordinariness of people’s lives and this is what she chooses to write about. There’s very little action, almost no plot, but lots of emotion and attention to the tiny nuances of human relationships. The other thing I love about her is that she never ‘over writes’. She treats the reader with respect and expects them to pick up on the subtleties of her characters interactions without spelling them out. I listened to a talk she gave at a writers festival, where she said her influences were Raymond Carver and F Scott Fitzgerald. Looking at her style, this makes complete sense and her novels are never very long, because she concentrates only on what she wants to and no more. I think The Children’s Bach might even technically be a novella.

She throws us into the lives of these characters without explaining how they are connected to each other, or without giving reams of backstory. Garner can also convey character with just a few words – when Elizabeth meets Dexter and his father at the airport, of the elderly Mr Fox she says ‘I longed to whip the serviette out of his collar’. This short sentence tells us so much about Elizabeth’s character. In ‘Making Stories’, Garner says that she always discovers her characters first, usually based on real people. In this case, she divided her notebook into sections, one for each character, and wrote fragments of dialogue, scenes and interactions, that eventually came together to form the narrative.

Garner also doesn’t flinch from the inner feelings and realities of her character. When Vicky, who moves in with the Foxes, comes back from a walk with autistic Billy, she says: ‘There was a big truck,’ said Vicky. ‘And I thought, I could push him under it. Do you ever, have you ever -‘ ‘Of course,’ said Athena. ‘Hundreds of times.’ Athena, trapped in her home with her dependent son, is ripe for the disrupting influence of the newcomers and there’s a brilliant metaphor that hints at what will happen, as Elizabeth and Athena fold sheets: ‘Their fingers met formally at the high corners of the sheet. Elizabeth’s relinquished, Athena’s accepted.’

Reading Helen Garner again has given me the confidence I need to keep on telling stories about the ordinary lives of women, and also not to be pushed out of my tendency to minimalism. Her spare style is so beautiful. And its made me want to go out and buy another copy of her seminal first novel, Monkey Grip.